An Interview with The Rev. William Stainton Moses
by Michael E. Tymn
Abstract: An Anglican clergyman and English Master at University College, London during the latter half of the 19th Century, The Rev. William Stainton Moses is most remembered as both a gifted physical and mental medium. This “interview” is based on his books, Spirit Teachings, More Spirit Teachings, and Spirit Identity. Except for words in brackets, inferred and added to permit a proper flow or transition, the words are his verbatim. The questions have been tailored to fit the responses.
“With the even tenor of this straightforward and reputable life was inwoven a chain of mysteries which, in whatever way they may be explained, make that life one of the most extraordinary which our century has seen.”
So wrote Frederic W. H. Myers, the Cambridge scholar turned psychical researcher, of The Rev. William Stainton Moses, in his 1903 classic, Human Personality and Its Survival of Bodily Death.
Myers explained that he and Edmund Gurney, both credited along with Professor Henry Sidgwick, as co-founders of the Society for Psychical Research (SPR), were introduced to Moses on May 9, 1874 by Lady Mount-Temple, who had become aware of their interest in psychical matters. She told them that she knew a man of honor who had been experiencing some phenomena. “That evening was epoch-making in Gurney’s life and mine,” Myers wrote. “Standing as we were in the attitude natural at the commencement of such inquiries, under such conditions as were then attainable, an attitude of curiosity tempered by a vivid perception of difficulty and drawback, we now met a man of university education of manifest sanity and probity, who vouched to us for a series of phenomena – occurring to himself, and with no doubtful or venal aid – which seemed at least to prove, in confusedly intermingled form, three main theses known to science. These were (1) the existence in the human spirit of hidden powers of insight and of communication; (2) the personal survival and near presence of the departed; (3) interference, due to unknown agencies, with the ponderable world.”
Born on November 5, 1839 in Lincolnshire, England, Moses, who went by Stainton, his mother’s maiden name, began his studies at Exeter College, Oxford, in 1858. However, because of health problems, he was advised to convalesce in the warmer climates of Europe and he spent considerable time at the old Greek monastery of Mount Athos before returning to Oxford, taking his Master’s degree in 1863 and being ordained as a clergyman in the Church of England. After serving as a curate on the Isle of Man for some five years, Moses was forced to return to London because of health issues. Following a convalescent period, during which time he tutored the son of Dr. and Mrs. Stanhope Templeman Speer, Charlton, who would later become Moses’ biographer, he was appointed English Master in University College, London, a position he would hold until 1889.
In Moses’ biography, Charlton Templeman Speer stated that Moses and his father frequently discussed religious matters and both were gradually drifting into an unorthodox, almost agnostic, frame of mind. Mrs. Speer had taken an interest in spiritualism and persuaded her husband and Moses to attend a séance with Miss Lottie Fowler. During that sitting, on April 2, 1872, Moses received some very evidential information about a friend who had died. His curiosity aroused, Moses attended other séances, including some with D. D. Home, the renowned Scottish-American physical medium. Moses had earlier referred to Lord Adare’s book on Home as the “dreariest twaddle” he had ever come across. Dr. Speer, who had shared Moses’ early view, calling it all “stuff and nonsense,” joined Moses in the investigation of spiritualism.
After several months, Moses was convinced that he was indeed communicating with the spirit world, and soon thereafter he began to realize that he was a medium himself. According to Charlton Speer, a small circle of friends gathered regularly to observe and record the phenomena. They included himself, Dr. and Mrs. Speer, a Dr. Thompson, Serjeant Cox, a lawyer, and several others. Occasionally, Professor William Crookes (later Sir William), the distinguished chemist and psychical researcher, would attend the circle.
As reported by Cox, Moses (or the spirits working through him) could, by simply placing his hands on it, levitate a large mahogany table which otherwise required the strength of two men to move it an inch. The spirits levitated Moses at least three times, on one occasion raising him on the table and then lifting him from the table to an adjacent sofa.
Other phenomena reported by Charlton Speer, a renowned musician, included a great variety of communicating raps, numerous lights, luminous hands, musical sounds, direct writing (no hand holding the pencil), apports, the passage of matter through matter, the direct voice, and trance voice, the latter including inspirational messages given by various spirits through the entranced Moses. Of the latter, Speer wrote: “Touching the manner of these addresses, I can only say that they were delivered in a dignified, temperate, clear, and convincing tone, and that though the voice proceeded from the medium, it was always immediately apparent that the personality addressing us was not that of the medium. The voice was different, and the ideas were often not in accordance with those held at the time by the medium. An important fact, too, was that although many spirits exercised this power of control, the voice which spoke was always different; and in the case of those spirits which controlled regularly we came to know perfectly well which intelligence was communicating, by the tone of the voice and method of enunciation.”
While different spirits came through, the chief communicator called himself Imperator. Mrs. Speer did the recording of the trance messages, but she said it was impossible for her to capture the beauty and refinement of the manifestations or the power and dignity of Imperator’s influence.
“I, myself, Imperator Servus Dei, am the chief of a band of forty-nine spirits, the presiding and controlling spirit, under whose guidance and direction the others work,” Mrs. Speer recorded the words coming through Moses’ voice at one of the early sittings. “I come from the seventh sphere to work out the will of the Almighty; and, when my work is complete, I shall return to those spheres of bliss from which none returns again to earth. But this will not be till the medium’s work on earth is finished, and his mission on earth exchanged for a wider one in the spheres.” Imperator added that spirits named Rector and Doctor were his immediate assistants. He had come, he said, to explain the spirit world, how it is controlled, and the way in which information is conveyed to humans. “Man must judge according to the light of reason that is in him.” Imperator voiced through Moses. “That is the ultimate standard, and the progressive soul will receive what the ignorant or prejudiced will reject. God’s truth is forced on none.”
On March 30, 1873, spirit messages started coming through Moses’ hand by means of “automatic writing.” This method was adopted, Moses was informed, for convenience purposes and so that he could preserve a connected body of teaching. Those teachings were compiled in two books, Spirit Teachings, published by Moses in 1883, and More Spirit Teachings, collected and published after his death in 1892 by Mrs. Speer.
In 1875, Moses, Serjeant Cox, and Frederic Myers formed a “Psychological Society” to seriously discuss the various phenomena, but upon the death of Cox in 1879, the society was dissolved.
“When, however, in 1882, Professor [William] Barrett consulted [Moses] as to the possibility of founding a new society, under better auspices, he warmly welcomed the plan,” Myers explained in Human Personality. “Edmund Gurney and I were asked to join, but made it a condition that the consent of Professor Sidgwick to act as our President should first be obtained. Under his guidance the Society for Psychical Research assumed a more cautious and critical attitude than was congenial to Stainton Moses’ warm heart, strong convictions, and impulsive temper, and in 1886 he left the Society, in consequence of the publication in the Proceedings of certain comments on phenomena occurring through the agency of the so-called ‘medium’ Eglinton.”
Myers went on to say that while Moses might have been lacking in judgment when it came to strictly scientific observation, he had no doubt that the messages recorded by Moses’ hand were in no way fabricated.
Rev. Moses, as I understand it, spirit messages first came to you by rappings, then through trance voice, and finally through automatic writing. I gather from what you have recorded that the rappings were much too slow and laborious, while in the trance voice the words were partially lost. Would you mind describing the automatic writing process?
“[Certainly.] The circumstances under which the messages were written were infinitely various. As a rule, it was necessary that I should be isolated, and the more passive my mind the more easy was the communication. But I have received these messages under all sorts of conditions. At first, they came with difficulty, but soon the mechanical method appeared to be mastered, and page after page was covered with matter of which the specimens contained in [Spirit Teachings] will enable the public to judge.”
What do you mean when you say they came with difficulty?
“At first the writing was very small and irregular, and it was necessary for me to write slowly and cautiously and to watch the hand, following the lines with my eye, otherwise the message soon became incoherent, and the result was mere scribble. In a short time, however, I found that I could dispense with these precautions. The writing, while becoming more and more minute, became at the same time very regular and beautifully formed. As a specimen of calligraphy, some of the pages are exceedingly beautiful. The answers to my questions were paragraphed and arranged as if for the press, and the name of God was always written in capitals, and slowly, and, as it seemed, reverentially. The subject matter was always of a pure and elevated character.”
If I understand you correctly, you are saying that your mind was not operating the pencil.
“I never could command the writing. It came unsought usually; and when I did seek it, as often as not I was unable to obtain it. A sudden impulse, coming I knew not how, led me to sit down and prepare to write. Where the messages were in regular course, I was accustomed to devote the first hour of each day to sitting for their reception. I rose early, and the beginning of the day was spent in a room that I used for no other purpose, in what was to all intents and purposes a religious service. These writings frequently came then, but I could by no means reckon on them. Other forms of spirit manifestations came too. I was rarely without some, unless ill-health intervened, as it often did of late years, until the messages ceased.”
I recall reading somewhere that you were able to observe the automatic writing process from out-of-body.
"[Very true.] During the whole time this communication was written, my spirit was separated from the body. I could see, from a short distance, the hand as it wrote. In my own room I felt an impression to write, such as I have not felt for nearly two months. I sat at my desk, and the first part was written. I presume I then passed into a state of unconscious trance. The next thing I remember was standing in spirit near to my body, which was seated holding the pen before the table on which this book was placed. I looked at it and the arrangements of the room with great interest. I saw that my body was there, and that I was joined to it by a thin line of light. Everything material in the room looked shadowy, and everything spiritual seemed solid and real.
“Behind my body, with his own hand held over the head, and the other over the right hand which held the pen, stood Rector. In the room, besides, were Imperator and several of the spirits who have influenced me for long. Others whom I did not know passed in and out, and appeared to regard the experiment with interest. Through the ceiling streamed down a mild, pleasing light, and now and again rays of bluish light were shot down on my body. When this was done, I saw the body jerk and quiver. It was being charged, as I may say. I noticed, moreover, that the daylight had faded; and the window seemed dark, and the light by which I saw was spirit-light. I could hear perfectly well the voices of the spirits who spoke to me. They sounded very much as human voices do, but were more delicately modulated, and sounded as though from a distance.
“Imperator explained to me that I was seeing an actual scene, which was intended to show me how the spirits operated. Rector was writing; and it was not done, as I had imagined, by guiding my hand nor impressing my mind; but was done by directing on to the pen a ray which looked like blue light. The force so directed caused the pen to move in obedience to the will of the directing spirit. In order to show me that the hand was a mere instrument, not essential to the experiment the pen was removed from the hand, and kept in position by the ray of light which was directed upon it. To my great surprise, it moved over the paper, and wrote as before. A great part of what is written above was really done without the intervention of a human hand. I was told that it was not easy to write without human aid, and that the spelling of the words was wrong. I find that is actually the case in the part written as I describe.
I remember mentally wondering how such spirits spoke English; and, in reply to my thought, several addressed me one after another in different languages. They were not intelligible to me, but were interpreted by Imperator. He also showed me how spirits commune with each other by transfusion of thought. Imperator explained that the sounds could be made in the same way, without aid from anything material. I heard the sound of fairy bells at the time, and the air was pervaded by a subtle perfume. The spirits were dressed as I have seen them before, and moved about quite independent of the material obstacles round them. Some of the spirits formed a circle round the table at which my body sat. I seemed to myself to be garbed in white, with a blue cincture. There was some purple too, a sort of over-robe, I think. Every spirit was self-luminous, apparently, and the room was very light. I was commanded to return and write down what I saw. I do not remember the return to my body. I am perfectly certain as to what occurred, and report it simply and without exaggeration."
How can you be sure that the words were not your own or that your mind was not coloring the messages with your own ideas?
“It is an interesting subject for speculation whether my own thoughts entered into the subject-matter of the communications. I took extraordinary pains to prevent any such admixture. [As I said], at first the writing was slow, and it was necessary for me to follow it with my eye, but even then the thoughts were not my thoughts. Very soon the messages assumed a character of which I had no doubt whatever that the thought was opposed to my own. But I cultivated the power of occupying my mind with other things during the time the writing was going on, and was able to read an abstruse book, and follow out a line of close reasoning, while the message was written with unbroken regularity. Messages so written extended over many pages, and in their course there is no correction, no fault in composition, and often a sustained vigor and beauty of style. I am not, however, concerned to contend that my own mind was not utilized, or that what was thus written did not depend for its form on the mental qualifications of the medium through whom it was given. So far as I know, it is always the case that the idiosyncrasies of the medium are traceable in such communication. It is not conceivable that it should be otherwise. But it is certain that the mass of ideas conveyed to me were alien to my own opinions, were in the main opposed to my settled convictions, and, moreover, that in several cases information, of which I was assuredly ignorant, clear, precise, and definite in form, susceptible of verification, and always exact, was thus conveyed to me. As at many of the séances spirits came and rapped out on the table clear and precise information about themselves, which we afterward verified, so on repeated occasions was such information conveyed to me by this method of automatic writing.”
Please tell me about the various spirits who controlled your hand.
“The earliest communications were all written in the minute characters that I have described, and were uniform in style, and in the signature, ‘Doctor, the Teacher.’ Nor have his messages ever varied during all the years that he has written. Whenever and wherever he wrote, his handwriting was unchanged, showing, indeed, less change than my own does during the last decade. The tricks of style remained the same, and there was, in short, a sustained individuality throughout his messages. He is to me an entity, a personality, a being with his own idiosyncrasies and characteristics, quite as clearly defined as the human beings with whom I come in contact, if, indeed, I do not do him injustice by the broad comparison.”
What about the others?
“After a time, communications came from other sources, and these were distinguished, each by its own handwriting, and by its own peculiarities of style and expression. These, once assumed, were equally invariable. I could tell at once who was writing by the mere characteristics of the calligraphy. By degrees, I found that many spirits, who were unable to influence my hand themselves, sought the aid of a spirit ‘Rector,’ who was apparently able to write more freely, and with less strain on me, for writing by a spirit unaccustomed to the work was often incoherent, and always resulted in a serious drain upon my vital powers. They did not know how easily the reserve of force was exhausted, and I suffered proportionately.
“Moreover, the writing of [Rector], who thus became a sort of amanuensis was fluent and easy to decipher, whereas that of many spirits was cramped, archaic in form, and frequently executed with difficulty, and almost illegible. So it came to pass, that, as a matter of ordinary course, Rector wrote, but when a spirit came for the first time, or when it was desired to emphasize a communication, the spirit responsible for the message wrote for himself.”
Most of the messages in Spirit Teachings came from Imperator, did they not?
“[True.] The volume is the record of a period during which ‘Imperator’ was alone concerned with me; though, as he never attempted writing, Rector acted as his amanuensis. At other times, and especially since that time, communications have apparently proceeded from a company of associated spirits, who have used their amanuensis for the purpose of their message. This was increasingly the case during the last five years that I received these communications.”
Please explain a little more about Imperator.
“The particular communications which I received from the spirit known to me as Imperator mark a distinct epoch in my life. I have noted in the course of my remarks the intense exaltation of spirit, the strenuous conflict, the intervals of peace that I have since longed for, but have seldom attained, which market their transmission. It was a period of education in which I underwent a spiritual development that was, in its outcome, a very regeneration. I cannot hope, I do not try, to convey to others what I then experienced. But it may possible be borne in upon the minds of some, who are not ignorant of the dispensation of the spirit in their own inner selves, that for the question of the beneficent action of external spirit on my own self was then finally settled. I have never since, even in the vagaries of an extremely skeptical mind, and amid much cause for questioning, ever seriously entertained a doubt.”
You mentioned some cases that were evidential – cases in which spirits unknown to you communicated and in which you were later able to verify the existence of the spirit. Can you give an example?
“[Of course. On] March 25, 1874, a spirit communicated through the table, name and particulars both unknown to any member of the circle. I inquired on the following day about the circumstances. [The following message came from Rector].
“The spirit said truly that she was named Charlotte Buckworth [called ‘Lottie’]. She has no special connection with us, but was permitted to speak as she chanced to be present, and for evidence to you. The conditions were unfavorable for our work. We were not able to harmonize the conditions, which were disturbed. It is always so after such a day as you passed…The spirit who came to you was one has passed from among you now for more than a hundred years, having made a sudden and unprepared entrance into spirit life in the year 1773. She passed away at the house of a friend in Jermyn Street, whither she had gone on a party of pleasure. She will probably be able to say more to you; but we have no control over her…She was very anxious to say more, but the power was exhausted. She has been occupied in her special sphere of work after awakening from a long sleep, and has not been brought within the atmosphere of earth until lately. She is attracted to circles where harmony prevails, being herself of a loving nature…[Her sudden demise] was due to a weakness of heart, increased by violent dancing. She was but a thoughtless girl, though of a gentle and loving disposition. We have ascertained that it was at the house of one Doctor Baker that Lottie departed. The day was the fifth of December. We are not able to tell you more; but enough has been said.”
And so were you able to verify any of that information given you by Rector?
“The verification of this statement was as unexpected as was the message itself. We had decided that no means of verification was open, and the matter passed from our minds. Some time after, Dr. Speer had a friend at his house who was fond of old books. We three were talking in a room in which there were a number of books rarely used, arranged in shelves extending from floor to ceiling. Dr. Speer’s friend…mounted a chair to get at the topmost row, which was composed entirely of volumes of the Annual Register…The idea flashed into my mind at once most vividly that there was the place to verify the information that had been given about this death. It was one of these utterly unaccountable impressions, or rather communications with which those who commune with spirits are familiar. It was as if a voice spoke to my inner sense. I hunted out the volume for 1773, and there I found, among the notable deaths, a record of this occurrence, which had apparently made a sensation as occurring at a festivity in a fashionable house. The volume was thickly covered with dust, and had lain undisturbed in its place since it had been put there some five years before.”
I also recall reading somewhere that you appeared to others to often be unconscious of your surroundings. Would you mind explaining?
"I do things one day, and especially say things, of which I have no remembrance. I go to bed with no lecture prepared. In the morning I get up and go about my work as usual, lecture a little more fluently than usual, do all my business, converse with my friends, and yet know absolutely nothing of what I have done. One person alone who knows me very intimately can tell, by a far-off look in the eyes, that I am in an abnormal state. The notes of my lectures so delivered, as I read them in the books of those who attend my lectures, read to me precise, accurate, clear.
“My friends find me absent, short in manner, brusque and rude of speech. Else, there is no difference. When I come to myself, I know nothing of what has taken place; but sometimes I gradually recollect. I am beginning to realize how completely a man may be a ‘gas-pipe,’ a mere vehicle for another spirit. Is it possible for a man, to ordinary eyes a common human being, to be a vehicle for Intelligences from above, and to have no separate personality?" (It is suggested that Moses here meant "individuality.")
"Can it be that my spirit may be away learning, perhaps leading a separate life, while my body is going about, and is animated by other Intelligences? Once, lately, in the Isle of Wight, my interior dormant faculties awoke, and I lost the external altogether. For a day and a night I lived in another world, while dimly conscious of material surroundings. I saw my friends, the house, the room, the landscape but dimly. I went about as usual, but through all, and far more clearly, I saw my spiritual surroundings, the friends I know so well, and many I had never seen before. The scene was clearer than the material landscape, and yet blended with it in a certain way. I did not wish to talk. I was content to look and live among such surroundings. It was as I have heard Swedenborg’s visions described."
The communicating spirits often warned you about impostor spirits. Would you mind explaining a little more about them?
“Experience abundantly proves that the borderland is haunted by a class of spirit that finds pleasure in communicating with earth; probably on account of the tie that binds it being unsevered, and because no magnetic attraction upward has yet been established. Such spirits are in a state of desolation, vagrant, homeless, and, with the affections (such as they are) still bent earthwards. They find their pleasure in posturing as some great man, or in playing a part that they see to be desired. These are the Shakespeares who cannot spell, etc. Few circles escape torment, and, indeed, risk of being broken up, by their falsehood and vagaries.
“I have frequently wondered whether such spirits be not the emissaries of powers antagonistic to the higher spirits whose charge it is to disseminate truth to this world of ours. There is no simpler way of breaking up a circle where truth is being instilled into receptive minds, than to introduce falsehood and fraud. Many are the warnings I have received from those with whom I have been in communication. They have always spoken strongly of the machination of those they call the adversaries, and warned me their efforts are most vigorous at times of earthly disturbance and unrest.”
How do these vagrant spirit gain access to the circle?
“It seems to be a question of the power as well as the wisdom of the unseen guardians. I believe that to enter into close relations with the unseen world without the protection of a powerful as well as wise guardian, is an extremely dangerous and foolish thing. Curiosity is no suitable excuse for meddling with unknown forces which may be deadly. We have been preoccupied in attempts to force on an unwilling world recognition of plain facts, of the phenomena objective to the senses, which Spiritualism offers for investigation. It is time that we point to the dangers attendant upon playing with that which, though spiritual, is not therefore always desirable; and to the curse that too often lights on those who rashly expose themselves to the risk of obsession by spirits whom, could they but see them as they are, they would avoid with might and main. It is well that the enthusiastic Spiritualist who talks glibly of angels and proofs of immortality should recognize the fact that there are sometimes other agencies than angels at work. Suggestions of evil, incipient traces of deception, should be repressed at once. The time has surely come when the dangers and difficulties of spirit communion should be learns to pray and to draw spiritual strength by communion with its guardians."
What have the spirits told you about death?
"The man is unchanged. The character laboriously built up by the acts and habits of a lifetime, suffers no alteration from the fact that that lifetime is over. But the state of the man, the condition in which he finds himself, his surroundings - these are infinitely changed; so much so, indeed, that those who find themselves in communion with spirits able to instruct and inform them, are fain to confess that but little idea can be gathered of that land from the language of allegory and parable in which the inhabitants convey their thoughts to us. It may be we have no power of grasping a state of life we are unable to imagine. Few Spiritualists will deny that the change which death makes is one that cannot be translated into the exact language which accurately conveys human thought, though we gain some faint and fanciful idea of it from symbolical and allegorical spirit teaching. No doubt the life is one of energy and effort for long after this state of existence is quitted, and till the spirit, purged from dross, is fitted for the Heaven of contemplation."
Can you reconcile all of this spirit communication with your religion?
"Does not the average man get out of Spiritualism, assuming him to make acquaintance with something more than its phenomena, a view of truth and duty, and spiritual development, clearer and higher than an average man gets out of his special, sectarian Christianity? In my opinion, the clear-cut, new and impressive teachings enforced by a man’s personal experience of a spirit-world near and above him, will be more potent than any glib familiarity with the well-worn shibboleth of a hereditary faith. He will find his greatest helps to personal religion from those who have preceded him, and returned to stretch out a helping and guiding hand to those who need and can appreciate the help. As a most valuable means of re-stating Eternal Truth in terms suited to present day need; in the sense, it is in very truth a religion. It appeals to the mind that has severed itself on intellectual grounds from old religious beliefs. To such it offers scientific demonstration of perpetual life after death. From various points of view, it is a science, a philosophy, a religion.”
It has been suggested that some Theosophists see Spiritualism as an ally against Christianity.
"Heaven preserve us! We want no ally against Christianity. We need rather a closer and more intimate alliance with a system which our philosophy could greatly illuminate, and our facts abundantly illustrate. There is no talk of any antagonism between Spiritualism and Christianity. Spiritualists are fully alive to the moral excellence of the Christian code; they reverence the pure life of the Christ. A few make the mistake of confounding the essential principles of the system with the disfigurements which time and man’s meddling have put upon it. No portion worth a thought is disposed to seek an alliance against what they trust to see purified and purged of error, simplified and confirmed in its essential elements of the Truth by the increasing spread of a pure, spiritual philosophy. We have better work to do than to run amok against the religious beliefs of any man."
Thank you, Rev. Moses. In closing, would you mind summing up the teachings you have received?
"Spiritualism asserts far more than the two facts of continued existence and communion with the departed. To them I would add the consentient teaching that man is the arbiter of his own destiny, forms his own character, and makes his future home. That is the most tremendous moral incentive, and I cannot conceive any religious system possessing one stronger. If Spiritualism proves to a man that he will live after death, just the man his life has made him; that his friends, all whom he holds dear, can still watch and love him; that his sins and errors must be atoned for by himself, and that no bribe can purchase immunity - if it does this, and it does more, it has in it the germs of deep religious influence on the age."